Lesley Riddoch: Empty rhetoric rather than a dream

Ed Miliband still harbours hope of a Labour victory in Scotland but the polls tell a radically different story. Picture: PA
Ed Miliband still harbours hope of a Labour victory in Scotland but the polls tell a radically different story. Picture: PA
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Ed Miliband seems incapable of grasping how this election is different, north and south of the Border, writes Lesley Riddoch

IS THERE anything left to say about the general election of 2015? Since around 20 per cent of Scots have yet to decide how to vote, politicians are hoping some well-chosen words, images, accusations, promises, stunts or private prayers can yet sway the Scottish electorate – half of whom seem intent on ending Labour’s grip over Westminster representation on Thursday.

Ed Miliband was still anchored firmly in that world of empty rhetoric yesterday when he insisted: “Labour can win the election in Scotland.” In the semi-private world of social media, though, it’s another story as Labour look for “air pockets” in the SNP tsunami, pray turnout remains below 75 per cent “or else we are toast” and pour remaining resources into the seats of big beasts Margaret Curran, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander. The Lib Dems are meanwhile feverishly playing up the chances of a personal vote for Charles Kennedy and a tactical vote for Danny Alexander. Damage limitation is now the name of the game – for all but the SNP.

Ed Miliband’s Man of Steel act on Thursday’s Question Time – in which he promised to lock the SNP out of Westminster – seems to have been a tactical mistake. BBC Newsnight asked a cross section of 500 (mostly English) floating voters to give second-by-second verdicts on key sections of each leaders’ speech. The collective response dipped from largely positive to negative as Miliband ruled out a deal with the SNP, falling further as he also promised not to cancel Trident. According to Newsnight editor Ian Katz on Twitter: “Scottish voters REALLY didn’t like Ed Miliband’s ‘no deals’ speech,” but that graph wasn’t published – nor would a tiny number of Scots be any more than a sign of the times. But actually how Scots feel is hardly the point any more – outside TV studios it isn’t in doubt. As former home secretary David Blunkett observed mournfully last week, “People aren’t even prepared to take leaflets or to engage in discussion in Scotland. I think people have stopped listening.”

Clearly Labour is not going to win the election north of the Border – however much Ed Miliband still fantasises about such an outcome.

With three days to go, it’s the mood south of the Border that’s now more interesting. While English political leaders, commentators and money experts are predicting Britain will go to hell in a handcart if the SNP plays any policy-making role in government, English voters themselves seem far less perturbed. Indeed some – clearly feeling cheated they cannot vote for the SNP and the UK’s most popular party leader – have begun asking pointed questions about the shortcomings of English democracy instead.

The day after Ed Miliband’s speech for example, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham made headlines on Nicky Campbell’s Radio Five Live programme by softening Miliband’s tough “no deals” stance into talk of “dialogue” with the SNP. Bafflingly, he cited Jim Sellars (sic) as the reason a deal would still be impossible because “he wants a second independence referendum on line one of the next SNP manifesto”. Extraordinary that a senior politician couldn’t get Jim Sillars’ name right but could insist that his views – as a highly respected but former deputy leader and ex-SNP member – should count for more than the oft stated position of the new SNP leader herself.

But the programme was most memorable for the contributions made by the sharp-talking Salford audience. One told Burnham: “You’re insulting our intelligence. We know you’ll have to make deals if there’s a minority government – just be honest.” Another said: “You haven’t even thought about what’ll happen when you actually have to work with the SNP. That’s what’s worrying.” And another made a contribution that possibly sums up the thinking of many progressive English voters: “This election is probably the best thing that’ll ever happen to British politics because we’ll come out of it and realise we can’t continue with this first-past-the-post system. The SNP have sold the people of Scotland a dream, and in England you’re selling us flimsy promises – a tax cut here, more childcare there. Why don’t the English parties sell a dream to people like me?”

Now of course many will scoff at the idea of an “SNP dream”, citing problems in health, education and, as Charles Kennedy has been reduced to pointing out, potholes on Highland roads. But the Five Live contributor was touching on something else. He was complaining about the bitty, heavily managed, and vision-free nature of English politics, where a third of voters live in safe seats and the mainstream media ignores smaller English parties like National Health Action whose candidate Dr Louise Irvine may nevertheless unseat Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Even though the need for constitutional change in England is never breathed by interviewers or politicians, the English public is getting there itself. During a Radio 4 phone-in, a caller told Nicola Sturgeon: “The Scots are lucky to have such a capable advocate – but in Hampshire we need one too.”

English voters may be coming to a counter-intuitive conclusion – that a large SNP presence might be the only way to begin a mature conversation about constitutional change in England, a challenge all mainstream UK parties have ducked. Nicola Sturgeon could yet become the Nanny McPhee of British politics – the reassuring presence and distant guide who empowers English voters to seize the nettle and solve their own problems, considering proposals like a nine-region system of English devolution, abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with an elected federal second chamber and proportional representation for Westminster elections – backed by Nicola Sturgeon (even though it would halve the SNP cohort) but ditched as a top priority by the Lib Dems.

Fixing Britain en route to home rule – or independence once Scots are ready – may be a dream. But it’s a positive, timely optimistic dream that’s pulling voters towards the SNP on both sides of the Border.

As the redoubtable film Nanny tells her reluctant charges: “When you need me, but do not want me then I must stay. But when you want me but no longer need me, I have to go.”

Nanny McPhee may never enter Downing Street or the Commons, but her strangely popular brand of tough love may yet prevail.